Rita Indiana and the End of the World

Puerto Rican legislator María Milagros “Tata” Charbonier was arrested in August 2020 on 13 charges of corruption, money laundering, fraud, among others. Charbonier is a rampant conservative and a supporter of statehood, that has advocated against abortion and rights for LGBTQ individuals in Puerto Rico. She’s also (allegedly) corrupt to the core, an FBI investigation shows, using her power, influence, and family to enact a fraudulent scheme. 

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind when I heard of her arrest was “El Castigador” by Rita Indiana, a protest song released in early 2020 amidst the revolt in the Dominican Republic, that foresees the fall of corrupt politicians, like Charbonier. “Clavo con clavo, soga con sal, tó’s los corruptos van a temblar,” Indiana sings, as a powerful percussion beats in the background. 

“Let’s say I feel content that these hypocrites are being unmasked,” Indiana says, when I ask about Charbonier’s arrest that same day. “It’s really a slap in the face to all those who think that with a pretty face and worshipping god when the cameras are on they can buy the people.”

Born in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico’s been Rita Indiana’s home for more than a decade. Last year, Indiana participated in the historic protests that ousted former governor Ricardo Rosselló, and has been increasingly interested in studying the movement for Puerto Rican independence. It’s precisely this last decade living in Puerto Rico, publishing novels like Papi and La mucama de Omicunlé, and growing a family that resulted in Mandinga Times,  an apocalyptic collection of 10 songs that speak volumes of Indiana’s preoccupations and view of our chaotic world. 

Images courtesy of Instagram. Collage by Maridelis Morales Rosado.

The idea behind the album– produced by former Calle 13 band member Eduardo Cabra– was to describe and name the apocalypse, landing on “mandinga,” a polysemic term that originated from the Mandinka ethnic group of Western Africa sequestered during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Since then, it’s evolved into a long list of signifiers: “a Black person,” “a homosexual,” “a trickster,” “a beat down,” “a hyper-sexual man with a big penis,” or “basically anything or anyone that’s marginalized.”

“It was about how to describe from just one word everything that’s provoked what we are living right now,” Indiana says. “More than just the pandemic; it’s about climate change, the economy, colonialism, enslavement; all the things that seeded this chaos.”

The 10-song collection starts with “Como un dragón,” a dembow-metal mix that re-introduces “la montra” – as Indiana was nicknamed in the Dominican Republic – back to music, after a decade-long halt since their last album El juidero. Then, follows “Mandinga Times,” featuring Kiko El Crazy, an electronic merengue signaling the end of times. Mid-album, Indiana dedicates an anthem to love, the kind that scares the hell out of you, in “Miedo,” a take on reggaeton that’s fueled by dramatic strings of violins as Indiana sings, “Tu amor da miedo/ Me huele desde lejos/ Rabioso perro negro/ Ladrando en mi jardín.” In “The Heist” and “Pa’ Ayotzinapa,” we see Indiana at their most political, bringing their literary skills for historical retelling of the 1983 Wells Fargo Heist by Puerto Rican pro-independence group “Los Macheteros” and the 2014 Iguala Massacre in Mexico, joined by Puerto Rican musician MIMA and Café Tacvba lead singer Rubén Albarrán, respectively. 

The album cover for Mandinga Times.

It’s important to note that it’s not Indiana who sings in this album. It’s Mandinga, the alter-ego role Indiana created to narrate the end of the world, a “demon-like” non-binary figure that is reminiscent of “creatures found in afro-Cuban santería like Olokun,” but can also become “an apocalyptic anti-hero.” There are many phases of Mandinga, Indiana says, but makeup is what unites them all. 

Indiana first introduced Mandinga in the video for “Como un dragón,” directed by Puerto Rican Noelia Quintero Herencia, where Indiana plots the return of “la montra,” wearing a mime-like black and white theatrical makeup, created by makeup artist Rosa Lina Lima, who developed the various makeup looks of Mandinga.

To create an alter-ego, Indiana tapped into their own myth of “la montra” – or “she monster,” in English – giving Mandinga an “alien-like” look that challenges the Eurocentric standards of beauty revered in the Caribbean and Latin America. “There is something about beauty that isn’t a construct,” Indiana says. “It’s more about an instinct that can even cause you an altered state of consciousness.” Indiana recalls gravitating toward “ugly things” from a young age, like the aesthetics, history, and consequences of war, heavy metal music, and horror movies. All those “ugly things” Indiana found beautiful. 

This also manifested in the way Indiana developed their concept of emperifollá, which the singer describes as an “uncomfortable” concept. “First of all, I’m butch. Second, I always liked dressing casual,” Indiana says. “What I like is rock, punk, that scene, where people are dressed in black t-shirts, ripped jeans, and dirty Converse.” While the common assumptions of emperifolle in the Caribbean match more a Felisa Rincón de Gautier than a punk performer turned writer and musician, Indiana admits that being emperifollá is “about feeling pretty, at the end of the day.”

In Mandinga Times, Indiana invites their audience to imagine a better world. “Instead of experiencing the end of the world, let’s create a new one,” Indiana sings.  I’d like to think that world would release colonies from imperialism, create a coherent way of life with the environment, embrace our racial and ethnic differences without violence, and allow individuals to express their gender identities. Simplemente, vivir y dejar vivir. 

Frances Solá-Santiago

Born in Puerto Rico, based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief on Emperifollá. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, Glamour Magazine, Numéro, Refinery29, Remezcla, and Bustle.

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